When the Hundred Flowers Withered

When the Hundred Flowers Withered

The Chinese “100 Flowers” or “rectification” episode— heralded as an Asian “thaw” when it was first announced in early 1957 —ended this winter with the fourth of the great purges which the Communist regime has conducted since coming to power less than a decade ago. We chronicle it here as a case study in the problems and contradictions of a totalitarian society.

When the “rectification” was first planned in the months after the Hungarian revolution, it was aimed at the Communist Party itself. Or rather, it was part of that peculiar kind of “self-criticism” by which a Communist party, without doing any harm to its general position, tries to free itself from the incumbrance of past “errors” and brutalities. But by February and March 1957 Mao and his associates had decided that it was necessary to involve the masses in this ritual: “self-criticism” was to be supplemented by friendly criticism from the people themselves, encouraged and patronized by the party. “Rectification” thus developed into what seemed to some people a genuine effort at a limited “liberalization from above”—though it was an effort forced upon the party by the growing popular discontent which accompanied the collectivization campaigns of 1956, and which was further fanned by the Hungarian revolution. In addition, of course, it was an effort to regain among the Chinese intellectuals some of the credit the regime had lost as a result of the Khrushchev revelations at the 20th Party Congress.

Through a “rectification of working methods” the Central Committee hoped to “fill the moat” and “knock down the walls” which divided the Communist apparatus from the masses. There was no intention, of course, of allowing the latter into the castle.

Perhaps with the Hungarian and Polish Octobers in mind, the regime turned first to the intellectuals. It was in their behalf that Mao issued his February proclamation: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Even at that time, however, the rhetoric of spring was associated with the reality of winter, for Mao warned that “words and actions can only be judged right if they tend to strengthen and not to weaken the leadership of the Communist party.” And this was but one—though the most important—of the “six criteria” which the party leader provided, and which would seem sufficiently freezing in their implications to kill all but the hardiest, most Communist of flowers.